When Rolling Stone issued its retraction, my greatest fear was that we would once again have a curtain of silence, where young women feel too afraid to share their truth. And while I have no interest in reliving the experience or pinning culpability on anyone, that curtain of silence is why I am sharing my story today publicly for the first time.
This is my truth.
It was just after my junior year in college. I had an internship in labor relations at an automobile plant in Warren, Ohio. A New Yorker from birth, I was out of my element. I tried to find community to anchor my summer in Warren. I did what was familiar: I went to shul. One family invited me over for Shabbat dinner. Dutifully and hopefully, I went. They also invited a young man. He was nice enough. So, when this "nice Jewish guy" invited me for dinner, I said, "Sure."
A few days later, I went to his apartment. And that's where it happened. He tried to rape me. I managed to get out after a struggle, but the emotional scarring was deep.
I didn't report it. I thought it was my fault. I thought I should have known better. I should have been smarter.
I carried it with me for years and years. The shame and the fear faded but never erased completely as I graduated from college and law school, then became a lawyer, a teacher and a union leader.
Through it all, I've learned that it's okay to say "no." You can go to the police, report it. And it does get better.
When I began to read these stories about young women sharing their own truths, their own experiences with sexual assault and how, unfortunately, their campuses had failed to handle their accusations appropriately, I was inspired. I was inspired by the bravery of these women and the change they're creating. Not just change in policy, but change in our culture.
We all have our own stories to share, and we all must be part of the solution. Here's my part: as president of the American Federation of Teachers, I represent hundreds of thousands of workers at colleges and universities who can help effect change on campus. I can do something. We can do something.
And we are. At the State University of New York, for instance, where the United University Professions—an affiliate of the AFT—represents workers, the board of trustees released a policy earlier this month that establishes a "Bill of Rights" for victims of sexual assault. Under this bill, survivors are asked to repeat their stories as few times as possible and can decide whether they want to engage law enforcement without being pressured by college officials. It clearly defines "affirmative consent." SUNY is creating a best practice guide for freshman orientation, a clear and confidential reporting protocol, and a campus climate assessment to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.
In a statement, SUNY board Chairman Carl McCall said, "The State University of New York now has the most comprehensive, victim-centered set of sexual assault policies at any college campus or system of higher education in the country."
Carl might be right. And it's a policy our union pushed for. In May, the UUP passed a resolution to press SUNY administrators to implement U.S. Senate recommendations for responding to sexual assault on college campuses.
Ending sexual assault on campus is going to take many partners—students, administrators, faculty, staff and their unions. It will take putting sound policies in place on campus and implementing these policies faithfully. It will take holding institutions accountable through legislation, like the bill Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced.
But more than policy, we must all help change our culture. One in four women will be sexually assaulted in college. Sadly, only a tiny fraction of the victims will file a report, in part because our culture tells them that they are to blame—the same culture that has kept me from speaking out for nearly 30 years.
If we want to change that culture and combat sexual assault, we must take it on together. We must speak out together.
That's the truth.
Randi Weingarten is president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, which represents teachers; paraprofessionals and school-related personnel; higher education faculty and staff; nurses and other healthcare professionals; local, state and federal government employees; and early childhood educators.
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